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La Mancha: The Stain of Truth

Mancha, in Spanish, means “stain,” and in La Mancha, the region Don Quixote comes from, everything is true. So, for our purposes the excellent word “Mancha” will symbolize truth, which stains every page of Cervantes’ masterpiece (not to mention your screen).

It’s true, for example, that texts can write people (as I attempted to show in The Power of Stories to Change the World: Another Arabian Night). In fact, books themselves are referred to as the authors of Don Quixote’s madness, “the authors of the mischief” (47). The narrator tells us, “thus, through little sleep and much reading, his brain dried up in such a manner, that he came to lose his wits. His imagination was full of all that he read in his books, to wit, enchantments, battle, single combats, challenges, wounds, courtships, amours, tempests, and impossible absurdities” (23).  If books have the power to affect real people, how can one blot out the lies? In other words, how can one remedy the harm done by some books?

First of all, get rid of the offending literature, which is exactly what our hero’s niece, priest and housekeeper do. The housekeeper, however, wants to sprinkle the room with holy water and a bunch of hyssop as they do so, “‘lest some enchanter, of the many these books abound with, should enchant us in revenge for what we intend to do, in banishing them out of the world’” (47). The reader must accept that she is not mad, although her beliefs are not far removed from those of our knight-errant.

Holy water and herbs may protect the housekeeper, but will they save our noble knight-errant? More importantly, how can hyssop and blessed water save the reader who is the same danger of going crazy? Cervantes, or the translator (or our Arabic histiographer), has another cure in mind. Cure literary madness by writing another book, a truer book than the books of chivalry! In other words, blot out the lie with the stain of truth!

Thus, the narrator (or whoever is telling the story) is very careful to distinguish between truth and fiction throughout the book, so readers do not fall into the same confusion as our gaunt protagonist. Don Quixote’s real name was Quixada (or Quesada or Quixana). “But this is of little importance to our story; let it suffice that in relating we do not swerve a jot from the truth” (21). Although the facts are not clear in this case, the narrator insists that it does not detract from the general truth of the tale. The outcome to this debate on names is certain: “At length he determined to call himself Don Quixote; from whence, as is said, the authors of this most true history conclude, that his name was certainly Quixada, and not Quesada, as others would have it” (24). (Note the reference here to “authors,” rather than “author.” You can learn more about who is writing in my post: Who Wrote Don Quixote?)

What matters is that Don Quixote is history, and history, as we all know, is “most true.” The distinction between history and fiction is very important, “for historians ought to be precise, faithful, and unprejudiced; and neither interest nor fear, hatred nor affection, should make them swerve from the way of truth, whose mother is history, the rival of time, the depository of great actions, the witness of what is past, the example and instruction to the present, and monitor to the future” (69). If anything is lacking in the novel Don Quixote, the narrator suggests, “it must, without all question, be the fault of the infidel its author” (69). The narrator himself is not to blame, “if any objection lies against the truth of this history, it can only be, that the author was an Arab, those of that nation being not a little addicted to lying” (69).

The narrator has added a bit himself, he admits, to his sources, but he encourages the reader to enjoy “not only the sweets of his true history, but also the stories and episodes of it, which are, in some sort, no less pleasing, artificial and true, than the history itself” (230). Apparently there was some objection to this approach, however, and the narrator tells us in the second book that he will not add any spurious adventures, yet a few hundred pages later, we read, “and if this adventures seems to be apocryphal, I am not in fault; and so, without affirming it for true or false, I write it. Since, reader, you have discernment, judge as you see fit” (624). In other words, the truth is not in the story itself, it is in the discernment of the reader, a proposition that you must judge for yourself, since I am not sure of it.

Many details of the book, may not be accurate, but the work as whole is still truthful, or at least it lies less than books of chivalry, which is almost the same thing. As the housekeeper and niece and priest are going through Don Quixote’s books to throw away the offending texts, they come across Don Olivante de Laura and The Garden of Flowers, of which the priest says, “and in good truth I know not which of the two books is the truest, or rather the least lying” (49). In other words, some books are less false and, therefore, more true.

Fiction may be truer than a truthful account (as I tried to show in Don Quixote: The Impossible Truth). In Cervantes’ Quixote we read: “And if it should be answered that the authors of such books write them professedly as lies, and therefore are not obliged to stand upon niceties, or truth; I reply, that fiction is so much better, by how much nearer it resembles truth” (425). Not only can fiction resemble truth better, in a sense, than most history, it is also more enjoyable because of its lies, perhaps more enjoyable in direct proportion to the amount of lies. The narrator goes on to say that fiction “pleases so much the more, by how much the more it has of the doubtful and possible” (425).

Style, although it seems to be pure artifice and most of our historians and scientists try to avoid it, is equally important to truth. And if the fiction is told in “a smooth and agreeable style, and with ingenious invention, approaching as near as possible to truth, [fiction] will, doubtless, weave a web of such various and beautiful contexture, that, when it is finished, the perfection and excellency thereof may attain to the ultimate end of writing, that is, both to instruct and to delight” (426).

Most academic writing, therefore, is less true because it is less entertaining and metafiction, like that of Don Qujote de La Mancha is more true because of its lies, because truth is always stained with fiction.

(Read much more about Don Quixote in my book Narrrative Madness, available at narrativemadness.com and on Amazon.)

Works Cited

Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote. Trans. Charles Jarvis. Ed. E. C. Riley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Thanks to: Bookrags: Don Quixote Book Notes Summary.

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2 Comments

  1. Dan E. Richardson
    Posted March 6, 2010 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    It is interesting to say that, “Most academic writing, therefore, is less true because it is less entertaining than metafiction…(which) is more true because of its lies.” The implication can be taken to conclude that what is being written here in this blog and on this topic (which is “academic writing”) is “less true”. This has the implication that, I should not read this blog but should spend time reading more entertaining books (perhaps Don Quixote) to extract more truth.

    However there are real truths that are being discussed in this blog and this article. So even the academic writing and the historical writing and the chivalrous accounts have their own truths. It may be more accurate to say that fiction has the “potential” to convey a particular truth better than a direct history.

    Coming around in a full circle where I am in effect stating that I believe your article conveys a truth and does it effectively. However on the opposite side, I believe that it also conveys a potential mistake which is the statement that ‘”Most” academic writing is less true.’ I have problems with using the word “Most” in such a strong statement. Indeed, academic articles like this may convey a good amount of truth. As a result, this article does convey some lesser amount of thruth Therefore I have come back to your premise that the “academic writing” is indeed less true in this case.

    What a circle! ;)

    …..Dan

    ……Dan

  2. ronosaurus
    Posted March 7, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    What a meta-analysis, Dan!

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